Two hot areas of software design today are intelligent agents to find information and conduct transactions, and realistic depiction of characters (as in movies and video games).What happens when these two pursuits intersect? We get intelligent agents that we can interact with just as we do with people. Having such animated agents may change the way we access the Web and carry on dialogues with people in other cultures. One of the folks hatching such virtual conversationalists is Katherine Isbister.
Animated agents are a natural for communication across cultural barriers, since the agents could store large amounts of information to help the participants understand each other–literally, in
language, and also more subtly in culture. Isbister is in the midst of such a collaboration, working at NTT Open Laboratory in Japan. Using a high-speed link between Kyoto and Stanford, she has two students converse across the Pacific, aided by computer characters. Isbister does not just create innovative new interfaces. She also uses social-science methods to study them and draw conclusions about how to improve them. As the world of Web interface design “moves from seat-of-the-pants theorizing to demanding rigorous guidance, Katherine will be a leader,” says Clifford Nass of Stanford, who supervised her dissertation there.
First he helped make the Internet accessible to nonprofessionals by co-creating the browsers that launched the public’s stampede to get connected–Mosaic and Netscape Navigator. Then at 23,he became one of the first overnight Internet multimillionaires when Netscape, which he co-founded, made its Wall Street debut. When America Online bought Netscape in 1998, Marc Andreessen became CTO. In September, after 7 months guiding a company with as many subscribers as the combined population of Denmark and Sweden, he stepped aside. The move leaves him connected to AOL as a part-time consultant. Fittingly, this super-entrepreneur will advise the company on its investments in high-tech startups.
At 6 feet 4 inches, Andreessen exudes gawky charm, and displays a polymath’s knowledge of the most exotic subjects. An Internet analyst told Fortune: “When Marc doesn’t know about something he thinks he needs to understand, he gets a book and talks to people and learns. The guy has a knowledge base that is just incredible.” Ultimately, his greatest influence on the future of technology could be the outcome of the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against Microsoft, in large part the result of Bill Gates’ business practices vis-à-vis Andreessen’s Netscape.
Sabeer Bhatia arrived in the United States from Bangalore at 19; now he’s a Web gazillionaire. With friend and co-worker Jack Smith, Bhatia founded Hotmail, the first free Web-based e-mail service. This concept was a radical departure from the dial-up services that required a paid account. Hotmail, in contrast, could be accessed via a Web browser from any computer connected to the Net. The idea found a market niche. Make that a cavern: After two and a half years, Hotmail had 25 million active e-mail accounts; now there are more than 50 million.
After emigrating from India, Bhatia studied at Caltech as an undergrad. While attending graduate school at Stanford, he was inspired by high-tech successes like Steve Jobs and Scott McNealy. In August 1995,Bhatia and Smith began seeking capital for “JavaSoft,” a Net-based personal database. The reception was lukewarm, but at the same time they were shopping Hotmail, which proved to be a more dynamic prospect. Venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson invested $300,000, and Hotmail launched on July 4, 1996. Just 18 months later, Microsoft bought the company for $400 million worth of Microsoft stock.
For the passionate innovator, a success like that is just a prelude. Bhatia is now president and CEO of Arzoo, an e-commerce startup that intends to offer a set of integrated e-commerce tools, such as a “shopping cart” that users will be able to push down the digital aisles from site to site.
One of the greatest potentials of the World Wide Web is the creation of online communities–electronic congregations of people with shared interests from all over the globe. But which environments best foster these interactions? Answering that question is the business of a new field–online community design. Amy Bruckman is a pioneer in this endeavor.
She develops virtual spaces called MUDs–multi-user domains–that allow many people to interact in real time. Bruckman specializes in a subset of MUDs called MOOs (MUD, object oriented), which allow users to interact not only with each other but also with “objects.” As a graduate student, Bruckman founded an online community for new-media researchers called MediaMOO,as well as a MOO for children called MOOSE Crossing. Bruckman has undertaken “the most notable MOO research in education,” says Aaron Tornberg, an educational technology researcher at the University of Cincinnati.
To make this possible, Bruckman had to design a new interface, as well as a new programming language. Once she creates virtual communities, Bruckman doffs her engineer’s cap, puts on her anthropologist hat, and studies how the online environment influences the interactions of its participants.
In 1994, Sky Dayton wanted to connect to the Internet, just then emerging as a nugget of ground truth from the fog of hype about an “information superhighway.” Dayton toiled nearly 80 hours configuring his computer for Net access–a numbingly complicated chore.
Intent on simplifying this task, he founded Earthlink Network–now one of the nation’s top five Internet service providers (ISPs), with more than 1.3 million subscribers. Attribute that success to Dayton’s near-religious commitment to the user’s experience: from spending heavily on customer service to innovations such as introducing the $19.95 monthly flat rate for unlimited surfing. That change came in November 1995, when most ISPs were still clinging to the notion of hourly fees.
Dayton–a high-school graduate who started up a West Hollywood, Calif., coffeehouse before getting into the Internet business–believes the Internet is the next great mass medium, replacing television. While that’s no mental stretch, getting the masses connected is: Only one in five Americans now has Internet access. Earthlink is working to connect the rest, and Dayton remains chairman of the Pasadena, Calif.-based company. Meanwhile, he is looking to play a new role in the Internet’s growth through eCompanies, a Santa Monica, Calif., incubator for Web startups that he launched over the summer with executives from Disney.
Roy Thomas Fielding
Without public streets, common laws and mutually held beliefs, life would be nasty, brutish and short. So would a trip on the Web if it weren’t for Roy Fielding. Fielding is a primary force behind open-source software, a movement that has brought transparent standards to the most widely used Internet programs. Fielding’s first big contribution came in 1994, when he invented a way for browsers to efficiently update stored Web pages, by transmitting information only if something has changed. Without this traffic-saving advance, the Web might have collapsed under its own explosive growth. Thanks to that success, Fielding was tapped byWWW inventor Tim Berners-Lee to author the latest version of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP),the standard that governs how computers exchange text, image, video and sound over the Internet. Fielding’s dedication to open standards means that no single company can control the Web.
Indeed, Fielding, who is due to receive his PhD this year from the University of California, Irvine, is also co-founder and chairman of the Apache Group,a collective of programmers whose free software now powers more than half of all Web servers–trouncing competition from Microsoft and Netscape.
Peter Girardi calls what he does “translation.” What he means is that he’s moving words written in traditional media–cartoons, theater and music, for example–into the digital realm. Girardi is well placed to do this work, because the transition from conventional media to bits is one he has made himself. At 16,Girardi was spray-painting New York subway cars. In 1987 he moved from graffiti artist to student at the School of Visual Arts, where he began exploring what computers can do. At Funny Garbage, the company he founded in 1995, he is helping bring interactive technology to many established art forms.
For instance, in his earlier work as creative director of CD-ROM developer Voyager, Girardi produced an interactive CD version of Art Spiegelman’s dark “Maus”–the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon epic Spiegelman based on his father’s experience of the Holocaust. In addition to participating in digital artistic collaborations, his company also does Web site design. Clients range from the popular search engine Alta Vista, for which Funny Garbage created a new interface, to David Byrne’s world music label, Luaka Bop. According to Spiegelman, “Peter is the best of the new gardeners landscaping our new virtual jungle.”
These days, robots are typically used in limited, specialized roles. But if Helen Greiner and Colin Angle have anything to say about that, robots may soon be a more versatile and ubiquitous part of our lives. Greiner and Angle are two of the founders of IS Robotics. Working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research, IS Robotics has built a number of innovative robots designed to detect mines, retrieve unexploded bombs, swim like fish–even walk up walls. The company’s focus isn’t solely on the military, though: IS Robotics recently signed a contract with Hasbro to develop interactive robots as future toys, and is working with the oil exploration industry and other industries. As president of the company and head of research, Greiner has been able to balance the company’s business and research needs. “Helen is an innovator in technology, government research and business,” says Rodney Brooks, director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a co-founder of the company. In her position at IS, she is one of the leaders of an effort to develop networked robots that Brooks says will become “the eyes, ears and arms of the Internet.”
Even among the TR100, venture capitalist Jonathan Heiliger is a youngster. He got a head start in high technology, working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator when he was 15. From there, he made warp-speed transitions from basic science to network engineering to deal making. Highlights include designing the network architecture used by megaprovider UUNet and brokering the acquisition of Internet Systems by Frontier Global Center. As Frontier’s CTO, he laid out the firm’s Internet strategy, formulating a system of data centers connected by high-speed links; Frontier’s network hosts 40 percent of the top 100 Web sites.
Being CTO wasn’t enough; Heiliger wanted to try being a venture capitalist. For most people that would entail getting an MBA. But Heiliger, who doesn’t have a college degree, choose a different track. He drafted a proposal, asking Frontier to start a $30 million venture capital fund and to appoint him to manage it.
The company agreed, “rounding” the fund up to $100 million. As Interactive Week said, “Heiliger’s contribution to the Web’s emergence as a medium for reaching the masses is staggering.” Heiliger now says he’d like to be a CEO– if he can find the right small company.
Are you a knowledge worker? If so, Natalie Jeremijenko would like you to install Stump on your computer. Every time you print out a tree’s worth of paper, Stumpprints a picture of a tree ring. With enough rings, you can reconstruct the stump of a tree. For Australian-born Jeremijenko, who is director of the Yale University Engineering Design Lab and an acclaimed technoartist, Stump is a way to make “a tangible version of the Internet world.”
Jeremijenko says her aim is to pierce the shared “hallucination” that cyberspace is somehow clean and immaterial. In reality, she points out, the digital domain is a world of hardware and some hard truths. Jeremijenko makes the latter difficult to ignore with projects like OneTree, in which 2,000 walnut trees will be placed in sensor-equipped planters around the San Francisco Bay area next year. As the trees grow, their condition will record the region’s climatic, socioeconomic and environmental extremes. Silicon Valley is home to a large concentration of Superfund toxic waste sites, and one of the nation’s largest gaps between rich and poor.
Jeremijenko, who produces much of her art under the auspices of a fictional institution she calls the Bureau of Inverse Technology, makes novel use of technologies to record social phenomena. She shot a documentary of Silicon Valley from a remote-controlled spy plane, concealed cameras in teddy bears to record children’s expressions, and installed a motion detector near the Golden Gate Bridge to count suicides (17 in 100 days).
At the dawn of the Internet, back when it was ARPAnet, the task of managing network traffic was pure engineering. But as the Net has exploded in size and economic importance, traffic control has come to depend on other disciplines, such as economics, graphic design, network theory and sociology. The innovators who can bring together people from these and other fields will play a big part in ensuring that the Web grows smoothly. There aren’t many people with a high degree of technical expertise and also such a wide-ranging perspective; one of them is Shivkumar Kalyanaraman, professor of electrical, computer and systems engineering at RPI. Kalyanaraman has made important contributions to research on asynchronous transfer mode, a protocol that permits high-speed network communications. But he joins the TR100 because of the breadth of his vision: In addition to traffic management and congestion control, he also studies Internet pricing, the development of online simulations for network management, and networking for multimedia. He works with network theorists, economists and programmers to study how the Net functions in real time. DARPA, the National Science Foundation and Internet companies are funding his productive collaborations to the tune of more than $2 million–an investment that will pay off handsomely if Kalyanaraman’s efforts help stave off a major Internet meltdown in the next few years.
Digital artist Maja Kuzmanovic has created striking interactive works that bridge differentartistic traditions and present the viewer with stunningly different visual worlds. She is now working on the Chameleon Project as artist in residence at the National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science in the Netherlands. One part of the project involves an interaction with what looks like a film clip, using little bandwidth with the recently developed Web tool called synchronized multimedia integration language (SMIL, pronounced “smile”).
In 1997 she developed an interactive piece called Once Upon a Moment, about a worker in a dystopian office who is plagued by ever more sinister nightmares. To tell this story, she drew on film, photography and existing new media work to create an interactive movie and Web site. The Croatian-born Kuzmanovic studied art and design in Italy before starting her undergraduate studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. There she designed Creation of Change, a CD-ROM that is a collaboration between the disciplines of fashion design, interactive design and graphic design. Interactive art has thus far been a field of enormous promise and uncertain execution. Kuzmanovic might be one of the people who can clarify this murky picture.
Many experts fear the Internet will exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the already ominous gap between rich and poor countries. One techno-Samaritan who is giving developing countries a chance to participate in the information revolution is Côme Laguë, co-founder and chief operating officer of Adesemi Communications. Laguë’s company has begun expanding telecom services in Tanzania and Ghana and is coordinating the launch of wireless telecommunications services in Sri Lanka, Zambia and the Ivory Coast.
To bring telecommunications to poor countries in Africa, Laguë often must integrate several generations of technology, work around gaps in infrastructure and reduce budgets. Take the Tanzania project, which operated in areas where as few as one in 2,000 people have a telephone. First, Laguë developed a system in which each subscriber has a pager and a voice- mail account–when they get a message, they go to a pay phone. Only problem? No pay phones. So Laguë put in a system of wireless pay phones. Now, even though there may be only one phone in a remote village, any villager has access to phone service. That kind of ingenuity on behalf of poor countries makes Côme Laguë a champion whose work deserves emulation.
Among the auction sites burgeoning on the Web, Priceline.com is an early trendsetter. Its business of liquidating unsold airline seats and hotel rooms by letting travelers make low-ball bids online has pushed the company to a market valuation of $10 billion. To ensure a robust patent portfolio for his site, Priceline.com founder and vice chairman Jay Walker set up a think tank, Walker Digital, staffed with inventors and patent attorneys. Two years after joining the company, Magdalena Mik has her name on 44 pending U.S. patents for Priceline and other e-businesses. Her innovations include the Adaptive Marketing Program, in which Priceline adds a dollar amount to a customer’s offer as a reward for an agreement to sign up for a credit card or some other service. Mik’s latest e-brainstorm: a system enabling online shoppers to name the price they are willing to pay for merchandise, which they would pick up from a participating retailer. Mik came to Walker Digital after receiving a BS in chemistry and completing one semester of law school (she’s officially on a leave of absence). Though Polish is her native tongue ,this immigrant to the United States at age 8 is fluent in commerce. She recently told Forbes that her inspiration was “the thought of being obscenely wealthy by the time I’m 30.”
Not too long ago, marketing was pretty straight forward. The major channels were obvious. The techniques for working in television, radio and print were well established. And there wasn’t much overlap among them. Proliferating cable networks and the Internet have obliterated this tidy world. Jonathan Nelson’s job is to bring companies bewildered by the media meltdown into the 21st century.
Nelson began his career as a recording engineer. Today he is CEO of Organic Online, which manages advertising, public relations, marketing and research for such big-time clients as Gateway, Sun Microsystems and Starbucks. Since its 1993 founding, Organic has grown into a 350-person organization with offices in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Brazil. Organic is known for innovative Web site design. But clients are beginning to demand data on the impact of their digital offerings–and Nelson is there to help. He is co-founder and chairman of Accrue Software, a San Francisco-based Web measurement and analysis software company. If Nelson can come up with ways to measure accurately the impact of Web marketing and devise effective strategies that tap the advantages of the medium, he will be heard from well into the next century.
The business of selling recorded music could be on the cusp of a complete makeover–and Michael Robertson is one of the main drivers of this change. Robertson is the force behind MP3.com,a Web site where recording artists bypass the marketing labyrinth of the recording companies and give their music away, via MP3 music-compression software.
MP3.com began in 1996 as the Z Company, which provided an online search engine. But when Robertson saw the MP3 software then being developed, he was dazzled by its potential. He promptly renamed his company and secured the rights to the MP3.com domain name. Over the next two years, the company grew from four employees to 35. In January it received a $10 million venture investment from Sequoia Capital. Soon after that, Tom Petty posted a song on Robertson’s site to publicize the release of his new album–and the ball was rolling.
Music lovers’ free ride can’t last forever; legal battles over copyright and other issues are sure to erupt. But Robertson, named “one of the 100 most influential figures in the music industry” by the industry publication BAM, professes little worry about the feelings of recording company executives: “I don’t have any friends in the music industry, so I don’t have to worry about upsetting anybody.”
Almost all of the TR100 showed an early affinity for innovation. Perhaps none, however, blossomed earlier than John Romero, one of the creators of the popular video games Doom and Quake. Romero began writing games at 12 on an Apple IIe. His first paid games programming was at Origin Systems, creators of the Ultima series. He later took a job at Softdisk Publishing, where he met John Carmack, Adrian Carmack and Tom Hall. In the annals of popular culture, it was a fateful meeting. Together the four founded id software, where Romero was responsible for the design of the Doom series and Quake–games that set industry standards for their ability to simulate reality. These products have become so popular that Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly have hailed Romero as “the Steven Spielberg of gaming.”
Although id had planned to begin on Quake II, Romero left to found Ion Storm and begin work on Daikatana, a first-person game that takes the player on a time-traveling quest for a mystical Japanese sword. The violent content of Doom, Quake and other computer games gives many observers qualms. But there is no question that they have been enormously influential in shaping the way teenagers spend their time–and perhaps how they think and feel. Like it or not, Romero’s creations will shape the cultural landscape of the years to come.
Many intellectuals writing about the Webolution tend toward either cheerleading or nay-saying. Carving out a third way is attorney/advocate Andrew Shapiro, director of the Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project, First Amendment Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, and a senior advisor to the Markle Foundation. Shapiro first came to prominence writing about the Internet for The Nation as a student at Yale Law School. Since his admission to the New York State bar in 1996,he has been a fellow of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and at The Century Foundation. The latter supported the research and writing of The Control Revolution–his recent tome on the politics of new media. Shapiro may best be known as co-founder of Technorealism, which seeks to define a middle ground between pro and anti-technology thinking. Some critics find Technorealism banal; Newsweek’s Steven Levy described the movement’s founding statement as “vapid” and “muddled.” Not everyone agrees. Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says Shapiro has “enormous potential to make lasting contributions to society in the form of better integration and usefulness of computer and communications technology by the citizenry.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could comprende everybody else? C’est impossible on the Internet, which is growing most rapidly in the non-English-speaking world. Right now, Web businesses cope with the multiplicity of tongues by maintaining separate sites for each language group–a costly proposition. But leaving sites in English leaves some international surfers wondering “Was ist das?” That’s a problem: Forrester Research reports that business Web users are three times as likely to buy when addressed in their own language. If Eric Silberstein has his way, the Internet will look muy differente in a few years: A single site will satisfy speakers of many languages. His company, Idiom Technologies, designs and markets “WorldServer” software, which tracks text that needs to be translated and then inserts translations into the multilingual site. Silberstein’s high-tech career began as CTO of ChipshotGolf.com, which sells golf merchandise online. In 1998 he founded Idiom, which recently received a total of $5.25 million from three different venture capital outfits. An early customer was Lycos, whose search engines attract global audiences. Angelo Santinelli, a principal at North Bridge Venture Partners, says Silberstein is certain to be “an impact player.” Domo arigato, Mr.Silberstein.
Today’s telecommunications network is woven largely from fiber optics–glass threads that carry thousands of times more information than copper wires. The key to expanding this capacity even further lies in a technology called wavelength division multiplexing (WDM), which sends multiple signals down the same fiber, using different colors of light (see “Wavelength Division Multiplexing,” TR March/April 1999). WDM requires a sophisticated switch to direct multi-spectral traffic–and that’s just what Jagdeep Singh created at his 1998 startup, Lightera Networks. Their invention, called the Core Director, was deemed so critical to WDM that last spring optical networking company Ciena bought Singh’s year-and-a-half-old startup for a whopping $500 million. Born in New Delhi to the family of a globetrotting diplomat, Singh landed in the United States and enrolled at the University of Maryland at 15. By 20 he was working for Hewlett-Packard and getting an introduction to telecommunications networking–a field primed for an explosion of demand. In 1993, he started AirSoft, which made software to improve the performance of wireless networks. He formed Lightera after selling AirSoft for $65 million. Now studying for a management degree at Stanford, Singh says he intends to switch from entrepreneur to captain of industry–building a company that will be a “lasting piece of the economy.”
Interactive television has been an elusive goal almost as long as Alex Thompson has been alive. Although various schemes for real-time viewer feedback to TV programs have been demonstrated, none has secured a market foothold. A new system promoted by Thompson’s company, Mixed Signals Technologies, could turn this dismal history around. This system combines WebTV and Echostar set-top boxes and relies on program encoding equipment from Mixed Signals, which Thompson started in 1997. Mixed Signals inserts data for interactivity into the interval between broadcast video frames. Having developed the software, marketed as TV Link Creator, Thompson merged her firm with Ultech, which makes video-encoding hardware. The resulting ITV Dataflo System is becoming a standard tool for program developers, adding interactivity to TV game shows. Sony/Columbia TriStar Television, producer of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” liked the technology so much that parent company Sony Pictures is investing upwards of $13 million in Thompson’s venture. Says Andy Kaplan, executive vice president of Columbia TriStar: “Alex has proven herself to be a leader in developing a cutting-edge technology which, we believe, will have a significant effect on our future business.”
In his job as senior vice president for business development and global alliances at Cisco Systems, Mike Volpi has developed a habit of collecting things–things like high-tech startups. In five years at Cisco, the leading maker of network routers, Volpi has been instrumental in that company’s acquisition of 34 companies. In his vigorous appetite for bringing smaller outfits into the Cisco fold, Volpi has developed a new model for corporate R&D: If you see a budding technology you like, don’t copy it–buy its origination. This way, Cisco gets the technology ahead of its competition, and the founders of the startup get Cisco stock (which has performed phenomenally in recent years) as well as Cisco’s powerful marketing muscle. Volpi’s acquisitions make him one of “the most influential dealmakers in technology, giving him,in many ways, more power than the myriad investment bankers and venture capitalists plying their trade in Silicon Valley,” wrote The New York Timeslast year. Born in Milan, raised in Tokyo and educated at U.S. universities (including an MBA from Stanford), Volpi demonstrates that innovations in ways of doing business can shape the technology landscape just as surely as dramatic new findings from the lab bench.
Hakon Wium Lie
Scandinavia is one of the most wired regions in the world. And within that realm, Håkon Wium Lie is a key player. As an early colleague of World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, Lie has had a central role in the Web’s evolution–particularly in relation to browsers. Working with Berners-Lee in Switzerland in 1994, Lie proposed the concept of cascading style sheets (CSS). CSS is a mechanism for adding typographical style (different fonts, color, spacing) to Web documents. Today, almost every major maker of Web browsers has adopted CSS–a big reason why Web sites look so much better than they did five years ago. Asthe Web matured, Lie’s career grew with it. When the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was organized to govern Web standards, Lie set up the W3C technical team in France. His chief concern was to maintain open (rather than proprietary) systems so the Web remained accessible to people using the widest array of access software. Lie has taken that passion for choice into the private sector as CTO of Oslo Web browser company Opera Software.
Opera claims to be one of the most standards-compliant browser companies in the industry, and Lie’s experience at W3C clearly helped them get that way.
In book publishing, indexing is almost an afterthought. In electronic publishing, indexers are kings of the jungle. What started in 1993 on a Stanford grad student’s home page as “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”–a categorized list of sites, managed by a search engine–became “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.” Today, millions know it as Yahoo!, and it has become the second-most-visited site on the Web. Thanks to Jerry Yang’s irreverent tone, and to top-notch programming by a fellow Stanford grad student, David Filo, Yahoo! had a huge part in making the Web accessible to people who didn’t consider themselves computer-wise. After dropping out of grad school to take Yahoo! public, Yang has seen his worth in stock and options top $1 billion.
Born Chih-Yuan Yang in Taiwan, he was 10 when his family immigrated to Silicon Valley. Speaking recently on “The Motley Fool Radio Hour” about his astounding success, Yang said, “It’s a dream come true, and in many ways it’s what America is all about: Nowhere else in the world could people like me do something like this.” Having described himself as “lazy” in grad school, now he is known at Yahoo! as Grumpy (his official title: ChiefYahoo) due to his fixation on staying ahead of the competition.
Is Happy in his future?